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Learning through Friendship

On my mom’s 62nd birthday, she told me, “I am 62 and you’re 26. How about that?” She thought that was kind of interesting. After some calculation, I told her this happened because the difference between our ages is a multiple of 9 and that once it happened, it would happen every 11 years. It happened when we were 4 and 40, 15 and 51, 26 and 62, 37 and 73 and so on. I was thinking about this recently as I just completed 35 consecutive years on a college campus. I am 53.

This happened in 1982 when I was 20 and had 2 years of college under my belt. While I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I was benefitting from something some call scientia per amicitiam, or knowledge through friendship.

I don’t have a succinct definition for this phrase. However, I often ask individuals about a favorite teacher or someone who made a difference in their lives. Typically, the stream that runs through responses is scientia per amicitiam. Think of your best teachers, the best physician who has ever practiced on you. Think of a good veterinarian, nurse, or car mechanic. These practitioners, especially teachers, are most effective when exhibiting the characteristics of friendship as they work—empathy, honesty, altruism, mutual understanding and compassion, enjoyment of each other's company, trust, and the ability to be oneself, express one's ideas, and make mistakes without fear of judgment.

As an undergraduate I once visited a professor’s office hour to talk to him about an assignment on which I received a grade of 39 percent. His most motivating comment to me was, “If at the end of the semester I am adding up 39’s, I won’t be adding up much.” After that visit I thought about the first time I’d visted a professor’s office. I was nervous, but I hoped it didn’t show. I walked in and the professor said, “Calm down.” We had a great conversation. He answered my questions, and we even talked about my personal interests. I was fortunate he was my first visit, and unsure how things would have been different if instead it had been Professor “Won’t Be Adding Up Much.” I know now that scientia per amicitiam helped me to succeed.

Eleven years later, at age 31, I had 13 years of experience on a college campus. I was in my beginning years as an assistant professor. I started thinking seriously about teaching and learning through problem solving. Students in a problem-solving-centered classroom must have the opportunity to be stuck, to understand that the state of being stuck is a natural and honorable place to spend time during the problem-solving process, to understand that frustration is normal, to apply and examine methods to become unstuck, and to celebrate “aha’s.” Students gain confidence as they succeed and realize they can improve with practice and reflection. We, as educators, need to provide a supportive atmosphere with ample space and time—per amicitiam—through friendship.

Next, at age 42 with 24 years on a college campus, I was chair of my department and I was involved in various ways across campus. I was dealing with more problems than just math problems.

In a November 2013 Huffington Post blog entry, “10 Characteristics of Good Problem Solvers,” Michelle Roya Rad writes that we all use intuition and logic to come up with solutions to problems. We need to be reasonably open-minded but logically skeptical. Good problem solvers go beyond a fixated mind set, open up to new ways of thinking and can explore options. They see problems as challenges and try to learn from them. They find ways to connect with people and try to find happy-middle solutions—per amicitiam. They usually face less conflict and have fewer stressful situations, don't let their rights be violated and do not violate other people's rights. They are more positive thinkers so naturally they are surrounded with more positivity and have more energy to be productive. They see more than one solution to a problem and find new and productive ways to deal with new problems as they arise. Good problem solvers can and want to be better problem solvers.

Presently, at age 53 with 35 years of experience, I see that higher education is faced with some hard problems that seem insurmountable and have many of us in the academy feeling low. Frankly, we feel low because we care. What we are doing is serious. We are providing the opportunity for others to develop, learn, and achieve success. Of all the experiences a person can have, a university experience is one that likely has the biggest effect on one’s life. When educators are constantly faced with obstacles that impede our ability to offer the best possible opportunity for our students, how can we help but feel low? However, by working together– per amicitiam— towards solutions to these hard problems, we can accomplish a lot. I suggest we start by celebrating past successes and understanding that hard choices will need to be made.

As I reflect upon past success, they most often center on student success. Through high-quality educational programs, we must assist students to achieve, per amicitiam, the essential learning outcomes we have set forth. We must continue to advocate for and celebrate the innumerable benefits of a liberal arts education. We must continue to expose students to a broad spectrum of knowledge about human experience, prepare students to be responsible citizens who understand and contribute to a changing world, challenge students to appreciate their cultural heritage, to be sensitive to diverse traditions and opinions and to value the pursuit of truth. We expect students to develop a lifelong commitment to inquiry as they learn the value of knowledge for its own sake as well as for the achievement of specific objectives.

Higher education must assume its appropriate responsibility in job training and economic development, but we need to find ways to clearly send the message and demonstrate the importance of the liberal arts in both areas. In his July 23, 2015, Time Magazine article, “10 CEOs Who Prove Your Liberal Arts Degree Isn’t Worthless,” Jack Linshi writes about “how liberal arts majors beat everyone else to the helms of some top companies.” Reading the words of successful CEOs is refreshing.

Rigorous academic programs, successful alumni, accomplished faculty and staff, successful outreach and collaborative efforts—for these and other achievements, we in higher education have many reasons to celebrate as we prepare to handle the difficult challenges ahead. We go back and forth—sometimes feeling stuck, sometimes reveling in success.

It’s the successes that keep me going and make me want to work through when I’m stuck. Last spring I had the chance to read an e-mail that a former student sent to a former faculty member. In part it reads,

I'm sure you don't remember me, but I enrolled as a transfer student in 1997. When I got to campus, I was a bit lost. Dropping out again was a real possibility. Then you called me. You saw my transcript and what I had done to that point and wanted to schedule a meeting. 

You encouraged me to stick with the major I chose and we mapped out a plan. I cannot say how happy I was after that meeting to have someone believe in me and encourage me. I was able to graduate in 2000, got a job in June 2000 and have been successfully employed since then. My degree has benefited me since the day I graduated. 

Recently my mother-in-law and I were talking about life changing events. My meeting with you was a life-changing event. For you to reach out to me first was a life-changing event. So, I wanted to send you a note to say thank you. You changed my course in life for the better. Your call to me that day, which may seem insignificant to you, has meant the world to my wife, my 3 girls, and me. Thank you. May you keep inspiring people to realize potential they may not know they have.

Most people working in higher education inspire students and have success stories like this. Let’s celebrate them as we prepare to do hard things. We all want our students to be able to do, and to get better at doing, hard things. We need to be willing to do the same. And we need to do it per amicitiam.


John Koker is Dean of College of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh. This essay is adapted from an address given to the college on September 8, 2015.